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By Sandra Alvarez
New York, Paris, London, Milan…these are all places that spring to mind when you think about the fashion world. Italy in particular, has had a long history of being a fashion mecca with Milan holding the esteemed title of fashion capital in the country. Every spring and fall, hordes of fashionistas, celebrities, and media pour into the city to clamour over the latest trends for the coming season.
But Milan wasn’t always the epicentre of Italian fashion, according to Italian engraver turned quasi-fashion writer, Ceasare Vecellio (1530-1601), Venice was a tour de force when it came to all things fashionable in the late medieval and early modern period. In his book, De gli Habiti Antichi e Modérni di Diversi Parti di Mondo (1590, 1598), Vecellio presented over 400 woodcuts detailing costume and modern style in Venice and around the world. The woodcuts included commentary and opinion on Venetian dress and included a wealth of information on clothing production and the textile industry during this period.
A New Dress or a New Husband?
In an article on Venetian fashion, Margaret F. Rosenthal explains that Venetian officials opposed inordinate spending on clothes as it put a damper on prospective marriage proposals because families could no longer afford to fund sufficient dowries. Sumptuary laws in Venice weren’t just about preserving social status, they were about preserving social and economic stability. It appears some Venetians were potentially on the road to ruin with their reckless spending. It certainly didn’t help matters that luxury goods were in high demand, as evidenced by Vecellio’s comment on the winter fashions of Venetian noblewomen:
“The clothing shown here displays the greatest extent to which Venetian women were ornaments of precious gold, rich in pearls and other jewels, and h ow much effort and care they put into their coiffures…Every precious thing dangles from them, from their necks to their breast, complementing and embellishing the bodice and forming a necklace composed of large pearls of considerable value…over their camica they wear a carpetta, most often of bracelet, and in the winter it is lined with precious furs”.
Noblewomen wore and adorned their clothing with intricate lace. Initially, lace making was reserved as an activity for wealthy women but later became increasingly commercialized. When a Venetian woman of status married, she would be presented with a camisa de oro (a gold shirt) made of lace and starched with honey. Vecellio describes the clothing in his piece, ‘Brides Outside the House After They Have Married’,
“Their garments are white but with beautiful designs woven into them, and their baveri have high lace collars, beautifully constructed of standing open lacework, as are their bracciali’
Men In Black
Much like today, accessories were extremely popular. Venetian women added to their expensive attire by donning jewelled belts and brooches, embroidered panties, embossed purses and intricate fans. Venetian women’s styles changed rapidly (approximately every twenty years) becoming increasingly ornate as they moved into the mid to late sixteenth century. Conversely, their male counterparts remained virtually unchanged. One defining feature of Venetian noblemen and Patricians was that they favoured black, crimson and purple as the colours of status and wealth. Black, however, was the favourite and the principal way that Venetians of social standing indicated their aristocratic roots. Black was also symbolic to the Venetians because they felt it represented political stability. As one Venetian writer indicated, ‘it [black] shows likewise firmness, because this colour cannot change into another’.
Everything old is new again: Can I have this in a size 7?
These glitzy, insanely high shoes aren’t new. While they are currently gracing high fashion runways, and worn by celebrities like Lady Gaga, Venice and Spain gave rise to this fashion craze in extreme footwear over five hundred years ago.
Originally, women’s shoes in late fourteenth century Venice were flat, usually made of leather, and decorated with pretty stamped patterns. This changed by the sixteenth century as Venice made popular the chopine or pianelle, a high, platform wedged shoe made of wood or cork. The shoes served two main purposes: First, they kept debris, garbage and mud off the wearer’s dress and secondly, served as a symbol of status. The higher the shoe, the higher the wearer’s social standing. There have been reports of shoes reaching as high as 20 inches (50cm). This made walking a little unseemly and many noblewomen had servants to lean on when they were out in public. In spite of their awkwardness, the shoes remained popular for over three hundred years.
The Venetian Fashion Industry: Textiles and Production
Fashion was important to Venice’s economy during the time of Cesare Vecellio’s writing. The textile industry was booming in late medieval and early modern Venice making the city a major player in silk and velvet production from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. Velvet, which was more expensive to make than silk, was highly prized by the nobility and Venetian velvets soon gained worldwide attention. Venice also produced and sold wool, cotton and lace. Textiles were heavily regulated in Venice and the Senate introduced some tough protectionist legislation to preserve its interests in the textile trade. In fact, in 1558, the Senate ruled that only original citizens of Venice could trade wool and silk because they were concerned about the number of foreigners who were becoming rich working in Venice. Venice played a major role in early Italian fashion and dominated the textile industry for over two hundred years.
Margaret F. Rosenthal, Clothing, Fashion, Dress, and Costume in Venice (1450-1650), ‘A Companion to Venetian History 1400-1797’, pp. 889-924 (2014)